How a silent discussion opened the door for my students

I sat with the group, silently observing their small group discussion. Although normally she finds ways around it, on this day,  my student who struggles with stuttering had an almost impossible time getting her ideas out. When she is nervous, the words seem to break apart in her mouth. I know she has amazing things to say, because her blog is thoughtful, sweet, and expresses the thoughts of a deep thinker, but speaking to others while being watched was making that ability to dig deep into a text and pull out the heart of an idea invisible to the others. I knew I had to do something.

Backchannel chat and Twitter to the rescue.

In preparation of a student led, Socratic discussion, students had read almost half of Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup. They had close read passages, analyzed them for ethos and pathos, and written countless short answer responses. I had asked them to come up with open ended questions in anticipation of this discussion, but I didn’t think putting this student on display was fair to her. So I proposed a silent, Twitter style, chat instead.

First, I created a free backchannel chat at Then I created an assignment in Google Classroom with the link to the chatroom. I explained the format of a Twitter chat, with Q1 representing the first question and A1 its answer. I reviewed the norms of a good discussion, with interaction between its members, and let them appoint a student discussion leader. Students typed their favorite open ended question into the public comments on the assignment, and the discussion leader added the appropriate Q1 etc. to the question and pasted it in the chat. She monitored when student comments seemed to die down and added the next Q when it seemed to fit.

The chat was a success. Not only did the student who struggles with stuttering have success, but several of my more introverted students shone as well. In fact, if you look at the exchange they had in the above screenshot, you can just see the connections building. It was epic. I will definitely do this again.


Differentiating Using Curriculet

Curriculet is an eBook company that provides Common Core aligned questions, quizzes, and annotations for popular and classic texts. I know, because I not only use the website all the time in class, I also work part time creating the eContent.

Why do I use Curriculet in my classes? It allows me to differentiate for students. Students that read faster than others can speed ahead, but those who need to take it slower can do so. If they already know how to find themes, they can breeze past the annotations, but if they struggle, the annotations are there to guide them through.

And it’s not just pre-created content; Curriculet lets me import my own texts. When I do my unit on “music as poetry,” I can tailor the content to fit my students’ needs. With the data reports, I can tell which content standards need addressing as well.

As a content creator, I am assigned a variety of texts (currently I’m working on Fig by Sarah Elizabeth Schantz), from current novels to classics like 1001 Arabian Nights. I find crafting Common Core aligned assessments really rewarding, because I have a better grasp of what the standards are asking than most of my fellow teachers.

Try out Curriculet: some content is free, and other content is inexpensively rentable, making for some awesome literature circle opportunities.

Increase Student Engagement with Poetry

I love poetry. The fact that you can layer words together to create new meaning, that you can play with language or order your thoughts and connect with your reader makes it one of my favorite genres to write. But how do you get students who think in blank and white to see the shades of mauve and deepest indigo that poetry traces in your mind?

My first year, I tried the poetry in our textbook. I liked the images included with the poems, but I noticed that my sophomores were turned off. They were disengaged and unhappy with the poems I chose. So the next year, I tried something new.

I introduced music as poetry. I found the lyrics of some of my favorite songs, like Tom Waits’s “Black Wings”, and the lyrics of some of their favorite songs, like Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” I copied them on paper and wrote questions at the bottom. This worked okay as an introduction to poetry, but the wide variety of prior knowledge that students bring to the lowest level of 10th grade English became a problem.

One student, who had dropped down from Advanced 9th, could find and create figurative language, like metaphors, as well as sound devices, like alliteration. When we read and answered questions as a class, this student tuned me out. But I couldn’t skip the explanations of literary devices, because other students had no tool box of literary devices from previous years to open and unpack poetry.

This year, I applied technology to the disengagement and differentiation problems. Curriculet not only had a wealth of poetry with questions aligned to the Common Core already created, it also allowed me to import my own poems. Because Curriculet allows a teacher to embed their own questions and annotations, I knew I could create the ultimate poetry unit.

I started again with music, because I knew it was a way to open the doors of poetry for students. First, we looked at Taylor Swift’s “Love Story.” One improvement that jumped out right away was that students could work at their own pace. Those students who knew Romeo and Juliet from last year could bypass the video that showed the balcony scene from Romeo’s point of view. Those that had no clue about the play got the support they needed.

The next thing I noticed was that students did not know how to interact with the annotations. Although we had worked earlier in the year on how to take notes from video clips, I had to reteach taking notes from the annotations. It was worth it, though, because I was able to build on prior knowledge that I knew all students had.

We moved on to two more songs, Tom Waits’s “Black Wings” and Bruce Cockburn’s “Celestial Horses.” Now students knew how to take notes, but some were rushing through the poems and getting many of the short answers wrong. Because Curriculet’s interface was so easy to work with, I found that I could grade all 85 students’ work in less than a half an hour. This meant that the very next day, I could attempt some reteaching.

Any student who had successfully completed the short answers got some free time in class, to silently read or do other homework, while the struggling students could go through the answers with me. By differentiating using Curriculet, I could meet the needs of my students.

To bridge between pop music and more serious poetry, we looked at “Jazz Fantasia,” by Carl Sandburg, and “The Weary Blues” by Langston Hughes. Again, I retaught any material the majority had missed.

Now that they had a strong foundation of basic knowledge, in an easy to digest music format, I moved on to meatier subjects. Our textbook has many poems about death, but I have really like Jean Toomer’s “Reapers” and John McCrae’s “Flander’s Fields.” Often students struggled with grasping what is happening in both poems, because they have no context for farming without power tools or for World War I. In the past, I had students read an article about World War I, but it never seemed to connect with students.

By importing informational text into Curriculet, I opened a window to World War I for my students. First, they read about John McCrae himself, to get an idea of who the poet was. Next, students read about the battle of Ypres, so they could have historical context for the poem. I could embed videos about trench foot, as well as war footage. For the first time, students began using the define function embedded within Curriculet, to look up words they didn’t know.

With all that background, they easily understood “Flander’s Fields.”  With a little help from some embedded videos, they understood “Reapers,” as well. Because I wanted them to compare themes, I put the poems together in one curriculet.

The last poetry curriculet I created was “Auto Wreck,” by Karl Shapiro. In the past, I tried to get students to focus on specific lines by numbering lines. I would still have students struggle with exactly which lines I meant. This time, I could use the highlight function on my curriculet, so students knew exactly what lines to look at.

Thanks to Curriculet’s free content, I could even include “Chicago,” another poem by Carl Sandburg, as an outside of class assignment. Even with a pre-created curriculet, you can edit the annotations and the questions. I was able to make this poem accessible to my students by modifying the content provided.

In my four classes, I saw an increase in student completion over previous years, thanks to Curriculet. Even my struggling students got the help they needed in a timely fashion, because I could easily see which questions needed reteaching. My more advanced students could progress at their own pace. I could even see the students who barely spent seat time on poems, and let them know they needed to take more time. Curriculet empowered me to reach all my students.

Haze of exhaustion

Exhaustion sweeps over me. Normally, I’d be tweeting at #flipclass, but I can barely keep my eyes open. Plus, there’s this new book by Robin McKinley, Shadows, that is sitting next to me on the couch.Typically, I resort to poetry as a blog post when I’m too tired to write longer pieces, since the November writing challenge doesn’t seem to have word count attached to it, but not tonight. Before I say goodnight, a recap of some of my educational day.

I thought I’d finally gotten caught up. I worked like crazy this weekend, finally grading my stack of creative writing prompt responses from my students. I’m hoping to use our schoology site to differentiate for my students in their revisions. I figured out one strength and one weakness, as well as resources to help students overcome their weaknesses. While 1/2 the class is working on a video, the other 1/2 will be working on revising their papers. But then I realize that I only have journals for a handful of kids in my 7th period class, and I ask them about it. It takes several hours of being at home to remember that they might be in a plastic bag at school. Sigh.

In addition, I duked it out with my new assistant principal about the advisability of sending a disruptive, swearing student back to my room after I’d kicked him out. After talking it over with the Intervention Specialist, I made plan #3 for how to accommodate several of my IEP kids who are lost. I posted to our school’s Facebook page about the latest student triumphs.  I met with my mentee about the forms she needs to fill out.

So I’m missing flipclass tonight. And I truly miss my PLN. They pick me up when I am too tired to face Tuesday.

Submerging Into The 5th Wave, Riptides Optional

Today marks our third day of reading Rick Yancey’s The 5th Wave. We have been exclusively chatting on Schoology, since my classes are used to that platform, and I now have a rubric that I can use to grade their interactions. I only had to revoke internet privileges for two students, and only have three students out of 11 on IEPs that need scaffolded comprehension question to replace our chat.

At first, our chats were very superficial, as we waded into the surf.  See below:


After the first two periods, I realized that they could not see each others’ comments before they posted, so they repeated the same comments or variations of the same comments. Also, you might notice that some of the comments were immature.

The second day, I explained what I was looking for again, and made sure that they could see each other’s posts before entering their own.  That day, we were up to our necks. I started to identify who was being pulled out to sea by the riptide, and who was ready to take off the life preservers.


Note that they are beginning to answer their own questions and to think a little more for themselves.

Today represents the third day of our read.


Note that is a different class. I have left first names visible, because I want to demonstrate how the interactions between the students share vital oxygen. They are beginning to make connections to their own lives, to the world, and to dive in below the surface of the novel.

I’m excited to see their progress. I can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring.

Self pacing the reluctant student

In previous years, if I had tried this lesson it might have failed. But I am excited to prove to students what I believe, so I took a risk.

In a normal week, I want my students to

  1. Work at their own pace to learn content.
  2. Get help from me when they are struggling.

And by risking the flip, I was able to do just that. You should have seen my room–students using my chromebooks, schoology and their writer’s notebooks to take notes, all on their own. Students posting a question to my google form, to further the discussion. Students in other groups, reading sample “I am from” poems, including the original one by George Ella Lyons, to write their own poems. While I circled around the room, helping the uninspired to figure out exactly what was going on in those poems.  I met individually with all my poets, having several show me their work at their request.  In previous years, I never would have been able to talk to each poet individually.

See, I decided that even the classes where I worry they will not complete their homework deserve the right to have the classroom be student centered.  To flip these classes, I have grouped the students, so the groups can take turns learning at their own pace and completing a hands on learning experience with teacher guidance. After two days, when all students have completed both activities, then we will regroup and discuss as a class before moving on to the next thing. This way, if someone was absent, I should be able to get them caught up by moving them into the appropriate group.

Even though their posted questions showed me they don’t get the idea of the online content, which was a video about Socratic Seminar discussions, they did work on completing their WSQs, (and thanks so much to Crystal Kirch, who introduced me to this concept) because I think it will really help my students to understand what to do.  Shout out to the weekly twitter chat, #flipclass on Mondays EST 8:00 p.m., who have been so helpful to me in starting the flip.

As for my advanced students, I’ll blog about them later, but it appears that they are ready to take flipping at home, to save the hands on for class. Now they just need to learn how to problem solve when their tech doesn’t work… always a great life skill.

The Rubber Hits the Road

Tomorrow I start out my new, student-centered classroom with actual students inside. Once I get over the department or administrator mandated tests, that is.

And the answer to the big question is: I have decided to try flipping all my classes this fall. Anything that allows me to spend more face-to-face time with students, that allows me to work with smaller groups and delve deeper into student-student relationships, is worth pursuing. If I look back at my beliefs, I can’t try anything else.

Because different student populations approach school differently, I won’t be tied down to only one method of flipping. For my advanced class, who gladly do homework, we’ll have some teacher created video content to watch at home. For my regular classes, who are sometimes reluctant to buy into homework, I’ll try splitting the class in 1/2, with student centered writing/reading with one group while the other 1/2 interacts with teacher videos.

Since the Social Media class is offered for dual-enrollment credit, and the professor does not want me to post lectures to YouTube, I’ll save the Social Media videos for another time. Instead, we’ll try to do student centered exploration of social media to advertise our school.

Some years, I have had strong bonds with students, where they knew I cared and was interested in them. These students still stop by to chat, and when they see me in the grocery store or on the playground with my kiddos, they shout hello. Other years, I struggle to make that connection. Those are the years where there are discipline problems. I hope the flip will make this year a strong relationship builder.

Bring on the flip.